Last January, when a pipe burst in the basement of my house, I had the bright idea of trying to plug the leak by attaching a garden hose to the rupture. It worked beautifully for 15 seconds; then the water shot out twice as fast from three new leaks.
It's a little like Congress's approach to campaign-finance reform. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) stopped the flood of soft money from companies to political parties, only to create — however inadvertently — new rivers of hard money from the employees of those companies. That water just wants to find its way downhill, and if one route is blocked, it will find another.
The question is: are individual contributions a better channel? One would think so, but a survey conducted by CFO magazine (see "Office Politics") suggests that however good the BCRA's intentions, the shift from corporate to individual contributions may create complications without solving the actual problem.
In particular, our research indicates that some employees feel pressured to contribute to political campaigns organized through their corporations or by their top executives. Of course, there are laws that strictly prohibit coercion. But the unspoken assumptions of office politics are such that even some senior executives are unsure whether a refusal to donate to a corporate PAC might injure their careers. Moreover, the shift places yet another responsibility on the finance department, which now must collect many small checks instead of cutting one large one.
The BCRA represents a good effort to tackle an enormous problem. Unfortunately, until the solution moves closer to the source of the problem, the fix will be temporary at best.